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SCI-FI SUNDAYS – OBLIVION (2013)

This week’s Sci-Fi Sundays article sees Dan D’Arpe analysing Oblivion (2013), starring Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko.

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Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), one of the few remaining humans working on a ravaged Earth of the future in Oblivion (2013).

When Oblivion was set for release in 2013, it is small wonder that the film world wasn’t exactly waiting with baited breath. After all, Joseph Kosinski was a relatively novice director whose only other film, Tron: Legacy, hadn’t exactly been the stellar hit that pundits had been hoping for. To boot, he was helming a sci-fi movie of all things, one that didn’t have the words “Star”, “Wars”, or “Trek” in its title. Instead, he was making a passion project; a film based on his own graphic novel that never had (and never would be) published. In hindsight, Universal Pictures seemed to have taken an awfully big risk with the entire project.
It proved to be a gamble that ultimately paid off quite handsomely.
Oblivion stars Tom Cruise as Jack Harper, a drone repairman who is one of the few last remaining humans on Earth. Following a devastating war with a race known only as the “Scavs”, humanity achieved a pyrrhic victory by resorting to nuclear weapons in a last, desperate act. Although the Scavs were defeated, Earth was rendered incapable of supporting large scale life. As a result, mankind was forced to relocate to Saturn’s moon Titan by using the Tet; a giant, advanced space station that hovers just above the Earth’s atmosphere.

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A tender moment between Julia (olga Kurylenko) and Jack (Tom Cruise) in Oblivion (2013).

Jack’s mission is simple: protect the giant hydro rigs that are draining the Earth’s oceans in order to fuel the colonies on Titan. His partner, Vika Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), is both his lover/partner, who uses surveillance feeds to watch his back while he is away on missions. They are both nearing the end of their tour and will be brought to the Tet in a few weeks to have one final debrief before joining the rest of humanity on Titan.
Although Vika is quite excited by this fact, Jack is secretly troubled. Although he can’t explain it, something feels off about everything. Earth is supposed to be home, yet mission control seems set on abandoning it, even though humanity supposedly won the war. Also, he keeps having dreams of a time before his mission mandatory memory wipe, seeing this strange woman (Olga Kurylenko) over and over again. One day, everything changes after he discovers a stasis pod containing Julia, the very same woman he has been dreaming about. This sets in motion a chain of events that sets Jack on the path of truth, ultimately culminating in a final battle to save humanity once and for all.

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Malcom Beech (Morgan Freeman) – friend or foe? Leader of the Scavs, or a human with a score to settle? Oblivion (2013)

The one area in which Oblivion clearly shines is in its style. A homage to the last-man-on-Earth films of yesteryear, the movie uses desolate landscape to stunning effect. Filmed in Iceland, the barren, rocky terrain is simply breathtaking, making it easy to see why Jack longs so badly to stay on Earth. Other locations, such as a wooded valley where Jack has built his own private retreat, further help convey the sense that, with humans out of the picture, nature has gradually begun to reassert itself on the planet. The result is both haunting, yet also strangely beautiful.
Although Kosinski’s sophomore credit, the director was able to gather quite an impressive cast (which even included Morgan Freeman, who admittedly doesn’t do much but still seems to be enjoying himself). Cruise gives quiet a strong performance, showing that his A-lister status is not simply dependent on the Mission: Impossible franchise. He portrays Jack with balance, mixing genuine friendliness with a gut feeling that something is amiss in the system in which he lives.
At heart, Jack is an explorer; he wants to find the truth, even if it gets him into trouble. This stands in poplar opposite to Vika, who also has doubts but chooses not to question. Instead, she takes the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” mindset, getting frustrated at Jack’s more independent thinking. Needless to say, Julia’s arrival upsets her greatly, both because of the greater ramifications, and also because of pure jealously. Although it’s easy to see why: Cruise and Kurylenko have a good chemistry between them, whilst Cruise and Riseborough seem a bit stiff in their interactions. Thankfully, Kosiniski realizes what the main draw of the movie is, and doesn’t waste time trying to develop an unnecessary love triangle.

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Julia (Olga Kurylenko) shows her affection for Jack (Tom Cruise) in Oblivion (2013)

Although not a break out role in any sense, Olga Kurylenko uses Oblivion to showcase her steady growth as an actor, trading in Prada dress for astronaut jump suit. Adding a former Bond girl (and model) to a feature always seems like a wise idea, yet Kurylenko actually adds an extra layer of emotion to Julia, giving some life to an otherwise flat character. It’s clear that Julia knows the truth, or at least more of the truth than Jack and Vika. Yet she is a rational person: she realizes that no one would take her word at face value, and simply blurting out any knowledge could be dangerous. So instead, she wisely keeps silent and encourages Jack (whom she clearly knows) to search for himself. By doing so, the film not only keeps the emphasis on Jack, but also gives Julia a reason to travel with him without seeming like an unneeded sidekick.
If there is one area in which Oblivion does fall a bit short though, it is in the storyline (although it isn’t for a lack of trying). A problem with pacing makes the beginning drag on a little bit, creating a few dull moments before the action starts to kick in. Furthermore, the entire “lone wanderer meets beautiful stranger from space” element of the movie is a bit of a blatant cliché, to say the least. Diehard sci-fi fans will see the plot twist coming a mile away, so originality doesn’t exactly get high marks, either. Yet the performance of the cast, when combined with the stunning cinematography, is enough to hide such shortcomings.

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Beech (Morgan Freeman) explains the truth to a disbelieving Jack (Tom Cruise) in Oblivion (2013)

Although not done by intent, Oblivion can be viewed as a film that highlights the pros of digital film-making. While this is somewhat of a mute case these days (nearly all movie theaters in the United States and countless other nations have switched to digital projectors), many film makers still insist of filming on celluloid. Reasons vary, but many claim that film stock, and IMAX in particular, offers a superior visual experience. Yet filmed with top of the line digital cameras, Oblivion really gives such claims a run for their money. Kosiniski himself actually insisted that his movie be released in 4K resolution, yet the producers overruled him for monetary reasons. Although the debate continues, Oblivion shows that the difference between the two different techniques is not as great as it once was (assuming, of course, that digital resolution hasn’t already surpassed that of film’s. Again though, this is a debate that shows no end in sight).

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Theatrical poster for Oblivion (2013)

Overall, Oblivion is a rather pleasant surprise. While no instant classic, it truly is an attempt to be different; a trait that is getting rare in Hollywood these days. Although a tighter screenplay could have made the movie so much more, it is still good enough to hold over nostalgic fans as they patiently await for the next great sci-fi epic.

MoM Rating: 7.5/10

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